Whether you call sunny San Diego home or you’re here to soak in the rays and sea breezes, there are many ways to put joy into your soul here without breaking the bank. San Diego, North County, and all points east have amazing treasures to offer, and the best part about this list is that most are completely FREE.
If you’re visiting, make this a bucket list of things to try–see if you can fit at least half of them in. You’ll be glad you did. If San Diego is home, and you’re like me, chances are these wonders have been in your backyard all along and you didn’t know or haven’t had the time. Next time you have the day off, plan a little staycation day with one or two things from the list.
La Jolla Cove
There are few places with as much natural beauty as the cliffside ocean town of La Jolla. The cove attracts divers, yoga buffs, and people watchers. You can rent kayaks and snorkel equipment nearby, or bring your own, to get a closer look at the reef and caves just north of the beach area. Spend the afternoon with the kids at Ellen Scripps Park, which overlooks La Jolla Cove, and enjoy the grassy areas that are perfect for frisbee, kites, and picnics. The most popular residents of the area are the majestic sea lions who are frequently talking with each other or laid out in the sun for a long nap.
Balboa Park is a sprawling 1200 acre park which also houses the famous San Diego Zoo and 17 distinct museums. The architecture, gardens, and walking paths are extensive and make for a glorious day spent in the San Diego sunshine. The park is FREE to roam and explore as is the Timken Museum of Art. Don’t miss the Botanical Building exhibit and the Old Cactus Garden which are FREE as well.
For San Diego residents, check out FREE Tuesday in the Park for rotated FREE admission to museums, gardens, and exhibits in the park. Check the rotating schedule frequently for the most budget-friendly way to see all of the treasures Balboa Park has to offer.
This is a given, but with so many to choose from, you are sure to find a favorite beach or two. Personally, I’m a big fan of the beaches in North County. From the dog-friendly Solana Beach to funky Swami’s beach in Encinitas, there really is something for everyone. For nighttime fun, build a bonfire on the sand and enjoy the glorious sounds of the surf. Lifeguard stations and bonfire regulations vary by beach.
Los Peñasquitos Canyon
About half an hour northeast of the city is Penasquitos Canyon which takes you through both wooded and open trails to a small series of waterfalls. This hike is easy and level, but plan for a few hours to get back and forth to the waterfall area as it’s 2.5 miles each way. Los Peñasquitos trail is kid-friendly and allows dogs on leash. It offers a variety of terrains and well-marked trails that are perfect for walking, biking, and horseback riding.
Between Mission Beach and Pacific beach, The Boardwalk offers 3 1/2 miles of great scenery, eateries, shops, and the perfect spot for people watching. Be sure to visit Hamel’s surf shop, in the shape of a medieval castle, which has been around since the late 60s–you can’t miss it. Belmont Park is also nearby, and has classic boardwalk rides including a classic wooden roller coaster.
Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach
Step back in time to Crystal Pier, an historic landmark built in 1927, complete with quaint bungalows directly on the pier that can be rented for a unique experience right on the water. If you enjoy fishing and fancy a stay above the water, it’s possible to try your luck from the front porch of a New England-style cottage. Fishing on Crystal Pier is FREE and there is no license required. You don’t want to miss this nostalgic pier that exudes the spirit of another era.
This destination offers a moderate 4.8 mile hiking trail with stunning 360-degree views of mountains and valleys, as well as the Palomar Observatory at the top of the trail. The observatory houses the famous Hale telescope which was the largest telescope in operation until 1993. You can tour the observatory for FREE or pay a small fee for a guided tour. Be aware that the temperatures inside the dome are quite chilly, so bring a jacket.
The Mountain Town of Julian
About 60 miles to the northeast of San Diego is the mountain town of Julian. You’ll find the Julian Pioneer Museum, quaint shops, and the renowned Julian Pie Company that’s famous for its apple pie (among several others). You won’t want to miss the Julian Mining Company where you and the kids can pan for gold and gemstones.
Torrey Pines Natural Reserve
You may have heard of the famous Torrey Pines golf course, but the Torrey Pines Natural Reserve, home to the rarest pine trees in the world, is 1500 acres of protected natural wonder. Miles of sandy orange cliffs overlook unspoiled stretches of beach, and it’s an amazing spot to observe dozens of local hang gliders. The views from these wild geological formations are absolutely breathtaking, and entrance is FREE. Only water is allowed in the reserve and no dogs are permitted. You can find FREE parking along the beach if you go early, and the fees are $12-$15 for the day if you park near the trailheads.
Navy Pier and the USS Midway Museum
Home to one of the country’s largest Naval bases, Navy Pier is a must see in San Diego. The giant array of Naval ships is enough to make you feel really small and very awestruck. The USS Midway is a retired aircraft carrier that is now a floating museum. It is FREE to climb aboard and look across the harbor at the other ships and soak in the majestic view. Museum tickets purchased online are as follows: $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, $13 for students and $8 for kids 6-12. Purchasing online and printing at home saves you $2 per ticket and the hassle of waiting in line.
California Surf Museum in Oceanside
About 40 miles north of San Diego is the lovely beach town of Oceanside which is home to the California Surf Museum. This museum is dedicated to the California surf culture and its rich history. Everything you ever wanted to know about the sport, the evolution of the surfboard, and dozens of exhibits and displays that preserve the integrity of surfing can be found in this timeless Oceanside museum. There is a small fee to enter, but prices are so low it may as well be free. Adults $5, students $3 and kids under 12 are FREE. First Tuesdays of the month are FREE.
Grab your dancing shoes and shopping bags and head to the Headquarters at Seaport Village in downtown. This is an open-air shopping and dining mecca that also offers FREE live musical entertainment on a regular basis. Head to the courtyard on select evenings for FREE salsa under the stars where live music plays and no partner is needed.
Timken Museum of Art
The Timken Museum of Fine Art is located in Balboa Park in the heart of San Diego and always has FREE admission. The Timken has many varied international collections of art as well as renowned guest lecturers who inspire audiences to imagine the stories behind the paintings. For families, there is a family mural project held at the museum on four Fridays throughout the summer.
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
Tucked away in one of San Diego’s residential areas is the little-known Spruce Street suspension bridge that some residents don’t even know about. If you’re feeling adventurous, head over to Spruce Street for a walk across if you dare. It stretches 375 feet across the trailways of Kate Sessions Canyon 70 feet below.
Imperial Beach Sun and Sea Festival
If you are lucky enough to live in San Diego or visit during July, this festival boasts the most amazing sand sculpture competition anywhere and it’s FREE to enjoy. Sand artists travel far and wide to grace the beaches with their masterpieces. There are also kid-specific activities in the kids’ zone, complete with their own small sand sculpture competition. The Imperial Beach Sun and Sea Festival isn’t just for sand sculpture; there is a pancake breakfast that is donation only, live music, a sandcastle ball, and an international food fair and market.
Coronado Island and the legendary Hotel del Coronado are a getaway unlike any other. Spend the day on a rental bike, or bring your own, and experience a charming and quaint town that is worlds apart from city life. Coronado is a walking and biking paradise, and there is no better way to experience its charm than in the open air. Not many places in Southern California offer access to everything the area has to offer in such close proximity. So, park your car and set out on foot or bike to experience the best of this island resort town.
Coronado Island is FREE to visit by car, as is a tour through the luxurious Hotel del Coronado grounds. There is FREE parking if you can find it, and metered parking is $0.25/hour with Sundays and holidays FREE. A ferry is available for $4.75 each way and kids 3 and under ride FREE.
Old Town San Diego
Visit Old Town to experience the early days of explorers and conquistadors who founded San Diego. Mission San Diego de Alcalá was the first Franciscan mission in California, dates back to 1769, and is located in Presidio Park in Old Town. San Diego’s Old Town Park houses several FREE museums and countless historic adobe buildings and displays from years past. The town offers FREE guided tours. Old Town San Diego is also home to some of the best culturally authentic food in the area. Casa Guadalajara and Old Town Mexican Cafe are both great choices if you love excellent carnitas and hand-made tortillas while you watch.
According to the Travel Channel, The Whaley House in Old Town is the most haunted house in the country. Once owned by Thomas Whaley, a gold rush prospector from 1849, it is claimed that shortly after he built the house, he and his family were visited regularly by ghosts. Modern-day paranormal experts claim that Thomas and Anna Whaley still linger in their home, as do several other presences from the past.
La Jolla Children’s Pool
For a FREE, fantastic ocean swimming experience with your kids, head over to the La Jolla Children’s Pool which is protected by a partial sea wall. This is a popular spot for divers due to the calmer surf, and makes underwater viewing a pleasure. Due to the expansive nearby reefs, there is great diving and snorkeling in this area. You and the kiddos may have to share the space with the resident sea lions as well as divers, but it’s the perfect spot for safe swimming, and a lifeguard is stationed there year round.
Embarcadero Marina Park
This expansive harborside park is perfect for jogging wide pathways, having a picnic, and enjoying various summertime events such as food and beer festivals and a variety of music performances. With beautiful views of the harbor, city, and Coronado bridge, you can’t go wrong spending an afternoon strolling this park. For amazing nighttime ambiance, try walking the Embarcadero Park at night–you’ll love the reflections of the city lights over the water. Just north of the park, you can view the last tea-trade ship, the Star of India, from ancient Asian tea-trading days.
Free Surfing Lesson at Cheap Rentals Mission Beach
If you want to experience what it’s like to be a local, grab a surfboard and try your hand at catching the perfect wave. One of the only places to offer some FREE surfing instruction, Cheap Rentals in Mission Beach has printed up a detailed surf lesson complete with safety tips about strong currents, basic surfing techniques and troubleshooting. They’re also happy to provide dry land instruction to demonstrate how to catch a wave and get to your feet. They rent anything you’d need for fun in the water–wetsuits and multiple types of surfboards, as well as kayaks and paddleboards. Surfboard rental is $30 per day($15 for an hour) for a standard board and $12 per day for a bodyboard.
Old Mission San Luis Rey
As the oldest of the California missions, Old Mission San Luis Rey is a national treasure. Located in North County San Diego in the city of Oceanside, Old Mission San Luis Rey exhibits strikingly white paint and a sky-blue dome. It was built in 1798 and is still home to Franciscan Friars who kindly open it up to the public for visitation. It is FREE to roam the grounds and explore the area, but you won’t want to miss the museum that includes ten rooms for a self or guided tour. Fees for the museum are $7 per adult, $3 ages 6-18, and 5 and under are FREE. Admittance to the serene cemetery and peaceful chapel are FREE. As a bonus, the mission offers day retreats as well as overnight stays for total rejuvenation.
Alga Norte Community Park
This 32-acre park is located in North County San Diego in the lovely town of Carlsbad. It sports the largest skate park in San Diego, which is FREE to use, as well as an aquatic center for those hot summer days. There are two different heated pools to choose from, a splash pool for little ones, and a hot tub for adults. There is an admission fee for the aquatic center: $3 for ages 17 and under, $5 for adults in the water, and $2 for hanging out and watching the kids. Alga Norte Community Park also has a nice playground area and barbeque pits for family gatherings and parties.
Calavera Lake Trail
The outdoor space at Calavera Lake Trail includes almost 5 miles of looped trail that also connects to other trail systems. There is terrain for every skill level, including a more rigorous hike up an extinct volcano, and the pathways are great for mountain biking or a brisk walk with your on-leash dogs. The lake itself is fairly large and the trail system surrounding it provides beautiful views of the water, various birds and water fowl, as well as dozens of flowering native plants. There is also a cave and multiple stone labyrinths on these grounds if you know where to search. This makes for a fun, FREE family outing as you explore the area for signs of the cave and not-so-obvious stone structures.
La Jolla Art Galleries
Head to La Jolla and stroll through its premier shopping and art district. Prospect Street hosts at least a dozen galleries from photography to modern and classic art to a dedicated African art gallery. A couple blocks away, Girard Avenue also has several galleries including R.B. Stevenson Gallery which features both local artists as well as international paintings, textiles, and sculpture. Strolling through these galleries is always FREE.
For a real off-the-wall experience, visit Australian native Shane Bowden’s, The Gallery on Girard Avenue. This one blew my mind with its wild paintings, diverse color combinations, and unique subject matter. If you enjoy a bit of graffiti-style and abstract art paired with the occasionally made-over superhero, you’ll be fascinated. Overall, you could spend all day in La Jolla’s art district and still not see everything.
Old Poway Park
Located about 40 minutes northeast of San Diego in the inland town of Poway, Old Poway Park is a favorite with kids and train enthusiasts. It is home to the Poway-Midland Railroad which features a narrow-gauge railroad that offers rides on prized antique early-twentieth century steam locomotives. There are also cable cars, trolleys, and the quick speeder car that pulls open-air gondola carts for a quick ride around the tracks. Fees are: $3.50 for adults, $1.00 for children for train and cable car rides and $2.50 for adults, $1.00 for children for the speeder and trolley rides.
Step back in time to the pioneer days in Old Poway Park where you can explore the Heritage and Nelson House museums for FREE. You can also enjoy various old shops and a working blacksmith operation. There is a creek that runs through the park, a gazebo that frequently hosts local music, and a farmer’s market every Saturday until 1:00 pm. Don’t miss the delicious country breakfast at the Hamburger Factory Restaurant.
*The steam locomotive is currently under repair but is scheduled to begin service again in September 2017. Check back with the Midland Railroad site for updates and train/trolley schedules. The other rides are still operating according to schedule.
Photo credits: La Jolla Cove and Crystal Pier, Dirk Hansen; San Luis Rey Mission, Don Graham; Balboa Tower, Stan Shebs; Balboa Reflection Pool, Ctorbann; Los Penasquitos Waterfall, Rick Bramhall.